Your strategic plan is complete! You’ve set your vision, planned how you will achieve it, and developed measures of success. Take a moment to celebrate because you just completed a significant task. It took a lot of time (and some money), you may have made some hard choices, there may have even been some drama. That was the easy part. Celebrate and then get to work.
Execution is where most organizations struggle. The strategic plan that “gathers dust on a shelf” is a cliché that is too often reality. Why is that?
- There are few constraints while planning. You and the team are passionate about the future of the organization and are filled with ideas. Good ideas. But typically, there is little serious thought given to the implication of the idea. Did we just give Sally a part-time job on top of the full-time job she already has? She’s a trooper and said “yes” when asked if she would own this. It’s easy to lose the zeal when you are hit with the reality of your calendar and your inbox.
- It’s not natural to think in terms of time and energy. When we say that “execution is expensive,” we don’t mean just money. When considering a strategic initiative, it’s not uncommon, to ask, “How much will it cost?” But how often do we ask, “How much time will this take?” “Who is going to be accountable for it?” “How much headspace will this occupy?” This work is “expensive” in terms of time, focus, and energy. Perhaps more expensive than money.
- It requires delayed gratification. Rewards are in the future; the disruption, discomfort, and discipline happen now. Implementing new initiatives is hard. How many of us have seen our New Year’s resolutions lose steam in February? This is human nature. We start with good intentions, but if they don’t pay off right away, we tend to abandon our efforts.
Your mission is important. Hard things are worth doing. Here are a few ideas on how you can ensure that the work you put into your plan pays off.
- Create a scorecard. A well-built strategic plan will have a small number of metrics that are used to gauge how the team is performing. Each metric should have an owner. Surfacing these metrics regularly is an effective way to foster accountability. The scorecard can also be an effective communication tool shared during your board and staff meetings.
- Keep the plan top of mind. Establish a recurring meeting (where looking at the scorecard is part of it). If you know that every other week you will be asked to report on your progress, you’re more likely to make sure it’s on track.
- Appoint a plan manager. Identify someone within your organization to champion the plan internally. This person isn’t responsible for completing every task, but they should make sure the plan is being discussed regularly.
- Don’t try to do too much too fast. You developed a plan for the next three to five years – so don’t expect to start all the projects immediately. Identify a manageable amount of work for each quarter. Making progress is more important than completing everything as fast as possible.
- Be agile. Plans change. You cannot accurately estimate where the organization will be in three years. Even one year is a lot (pandemic, anyone?). Change is not the problem. Uncontrolled change is. Set 90-day goals, assess where you are at the end of the 90 days, learn, adjust, and plan the next 90. If you take a rigid approach to managing the plan, you increase the odds that once you are off-track, you give up. Be like the willow, not the oak. Flex.
- Revisit and refresh your plan annually. Things change – funding, community needs, staffing – and sometimes your plan needs to change with it. Schedule an annual mini-retreat to check in on your plan and make sure it still aligns with your vision for the future.
- Leadership and Culture. We saved the most important one for last. If your leader doesn’t embrace and take accountability for the “expense” of implementing the plan, no one will. And the team that owns the plan, or aspects of it, must show up and deliver. This will communicate to others that “this is how we do it here.”